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Sri Lanka refuses to call cease-fire

THE United Nations warned yesterday that civilians caught in the shrinking sliver of Sri Lanka territory still controlled by Tamil rebels are facing a massive food crisis, and convoys may not be able to deliver supplies until late next week.

Concern for the fate of civilians - hundreds of whom observers say have died in the latest fighting - has grown recently, and several Western countries have pressed the government to declare a cease-fire to allow noncombatants to flee.

Sri Lanka has refused to let up its offensive, ruling out a cease-fire, but President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised the UN he would safeguard innocents caught in the government's relentless offensive, which has almost routed the Tamil Tigers, virtually ending their 25-year war for a separate nation in the Sinhalese-majority country.

Yesterday, troops captured the headquarters of a rebel regiment, he said.

Rajapaksa assured UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a 15-minute telephone conversation on Thursday that the offensive "would be carried out without harassment to the civilian population," a statement from the president's office said.

Reports from the sealed war zone, known as Vanni, were patchy, but evidence has grown in recent days of mounting casualties among the estimated 250,000 civilians trapped there. A top health official said last week that 300 civilians had been killed, and the UN said at least 52 civilians were killed on Tuesday.

Adding to concerns, the World Food Program said the entire population of the Vanni was facing a food crisis. They are completely dependent on humanitarian aid, but the WFP said it had not been able to get a supply convoy into the conflict zone since January 16.

A convoy that was supposed to enter during a 4-hour "humanitarian window" on Thursday could not go because the agency did not receive the necessary clearance from government officials, a spokeswoman for the agency in Geneva said. The earliest they would be able to send in another convoy was next Thursday.

"We don't have any more stocks to be distributed, and our staff are essentially hiding at the moment," she said. The WFP has 16 staff and 81 dependents in the Vanni area.

Amnesty International called on both sides to declare a humanitarian cease-fire to allow civilians out and to let food, water and medical supplies be delivered to those who couldn't leave.

"A quarter of a million people are suffering without adequate food and shelter while shells rain down upon them. Most of those who have managed to escape the conflict have not received adequate hospital treatment," said Yolanda Foster, an Amnesty researcher.


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